My mother and the right to choose

There are few statements that can be made without qualifiers, exceptions or layers of complexity.  The following is not one of them:  the mothers of my mother’s generation, immigrants from India, are the reason behind the success of the Indian immigrants in the U.S.

It may well be inherent in our genes, probably dealing with survival in the beginning, to hunger for all that the term “Mother,” embodies: sacrifice, selflessness, and compassion, whether from a biological mother or any figure who shows those qualities towards us.  I expected my mother to embody those virtues — and despite all other shortcomings, like so many others of her generation, she surprisingly did.  Some would say (like their daughters) to a fault.

These adjectives placed on “Mother” is also a cross most women must bear and children suffer from since no woman can live up to such ideals.  (Heaven forbid when “virgin” is added to that.)  That “Mother” is an ideal best left for the divine and stories to teach rather than emulate — and for doted-on sons.  Even when women were allowed, wanted, or expected to work outside of the home, to be the breadwinners and the mother, there remained those ideals like a relentless shadow to haunt their already stressed lives.

My mom was raised to be a housewife, but she ended up working her whole life. Despite long work hours, there was always dinner hot and ready for us, something I appreciate more now when I must do it myself.  Take-out was not an option for Mom.  Going out to eat was only for special occasions.  The house was always clean minus any housekeepers.

She came to a country when she was barely 22, thrust into a whole new culture, having to learn a new language, to learn how to drive, to work, to go to school, and raise a child along the way.  No one asked whether this was what she had envisioned for her life or if she was happy.

My father is amongst the most non-stereotypical patriarchal men I know. He was content to help in cooking and cleaning and has never raised his voice to her, much less disrespected her in any way.  Even then, her happiness was not a question she or anyone else bothered to ask–at least not in front of me.

Most women of her generation who were professionals were doctors, often because medicine was the only other “choice” a woman could opt into with the rare exception of an academic, often since medical school was free for women in India.  But even from those women who were doctors, the full duties of a housewife were fully expected.  They may have been able to afford a nanny or housekeeper, but whether they ran a private practice or were on call, they were the primary if not sole caretakers of the home.

During one of our calmer debates about my career choice in which Mom couldn’t imagine why I was “wasting” my education from an Ivy League to dance and write, I asked her what she would’ve been had she the opportunity.  She said she would’ve been an executive at the bank she worked for, but she hadn’t known about such positions in her upbringing.  Perhaps, she would’ve gotten an MBA like many of my peers, and most likely excelled at corporate life, and given that mindset, couldn’t understand why I was choosing such a hard life.

I don’t wish to make a “type” of my mother or force a story into her life that may not be true. Her story is her own to tell.  I can’t gauge how happy she was or wasn’t; if she was happy with the choices she has made or were made for her.  She is a strong woman, yet, if I were to guess, if someone were to have asked, she may have cooked a bit less, gone on more vacations, she wouldn’t be so against gifts (save the money for your life!), she would’ve perhaps gone to a graduate program, married a little later, more than that I can’t say.

A friend pointed out that studies show women now are less happy then their mother’s generations also show that most of these happier women didn’t want their daughters to follow in their footsteps.  Paradox? Actually, no.  This is right in step with the conclusion of other studies which show that people are happier with less choice.  And women of my mother’s generation and culture definitely had less choice.  Then again, “happiness” is a rather intangible term given mothers are the most stressed in society, according to studies, though the most fulfilled — happiness doesn’t seem to enter the picutre.

Regardless, even if our mothers may have had less choices, which may have brought more “happiness,” it seems that they preferred that even if we were more miserable, at least it’d be of our own making than thrust upon us. Maybe there’s a balance between the two lifestyles of absolute compromise with no choice and adherence to a freedom that breeds no attachments or responsibility but enslavement to a career.

As I get ready to become a mother, I know now that some of my disappointment with her perceived shortcomings was my own high expectation — expectations that I, as a woman am burdened with and cannot live up to.

I know now that it was her protective paternal instincts that caused all our career debates.  She was right.  Artists can’t afford lifestyles those in medicine, finance or law can.  They may have to deal with years of training just to have it gone in an instant of injury; they may often have to live paycheck to paycheck; they may have to forsake family life due to a nomadic lifestyle.  I often wonder if I myself would be so gung-ho if my own children were to choose my path, for which parent doesn’t want roses rather than thorns on the path for their children.

But what I was trying to say all those years ago and in all those debates was that what I had taken away from the life lessons she directly and indirectly taught me was to embrace the right to choose.  It wasn’t what you chose that was of importance, as much as that you could do it — and again, science backs this philosophy up.

Thus, it’s very fitting that Mother’s Day falls on the same day as the anniversary of the birth control pill.  Whether you take the pill or not, the point is that allowing the pill allowed women a right to their bodies, a right to their reproduction, a choice to become a mother or not because whether you embrace the adjectives that come with “mother” or not, you will have to become selfless and sacrifice.

Perhaps not every woman is ready for that; and from my years of volunteering has shown, not every woman will be a good mother if parenthood is thrust on her.  Those ideal adjectives are still the root cause of many mothers’ distress today.  The question, am I a good enough mother is basically asking am I sacrificing enough? Am I selfless enough?  For those of my mother’s generation, the questions may have been the same, but the answers were definitely, choicelessly a resounding “yes” (whether in their own minds or not, I can’t say).

With "Baa" (grandmother) in Somnath

I can’t even imagine the women of my grandmothers’ time, or my ancestors, when 10 children was common and marriage happened in one’s teens.  Though sadly, many women in the world still live in that reality.  God bless them and their ability to reign power and self-expression in the ways they could.

Though every day should be a tribute, let’s face it, mothers and daughters share a special roller-coaster bond unto itself.   There is love, but either Indian women are often spicy like mirchi (peppers, the small hot ones) or flowing like rivers, taking it all in, strong but quiet.  Either way is potentially volatile.  This is not culturally bound as a multitude of American shows and movies reveal, from arguments about make-up (when, where, how much), to clothing, to curfews and choice of careers and schools in ways that make fathers leave rooms as quietly as they can to not get ensnared.

So, as a reprieve from those charged, volatile days is Mother’s Day to say, you have taught me so much: how to love, how to be a good human being, and most of all how to be a good mother one day, trying to live up to the ideals of motherhood and embracing my flaws as blessings to my own children rather than burdens.  And yes, I inherited and will most likely pass down the mirchi personality that is fiercely independent (it’s a double-edged sword!). Thank you, Mom!


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